Tuesday, August 31, 2010

Birthday Blogging Buffy

The Birthday blogging extravaganza continues with guest poster, Cheryl, commenting on what is probably the most universally loved show here at the blog: Buffy.

Sadly, very few of my favorite shows ever make it to the four year mark. I like to think it’s because I’m so edgy and ahead of my time, but, if I’m honest, it’s probably just because I’m weird. The flip side of my weirdness, though, is the shows I do like that make it that long are usually really, really good so choosing just one took some thought. I considered Ed Stevens and Carol Vessey’s “perfect” wedding finale on Ed (long live the ten dollar bet), as well as the brilliantly deranged musical episode, “The Nightman Cometh,” from It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia, but in the end, there was no choice. No show could ever beat Buffy the Vampire Slayer. Joss Whedon completes me.

From the beginning, Buffy changed the landscape of television so thoroughly, blew the hinges off of so many closed doors, that it’s hard to remember what things were like before it hit. Back when the strong, female lead was virtually non-existent. Sydney Bristow, Veronica Mars, even new kid on the block Annie Walker all owe a direct debt to Buffy Summers. As do Lorelai and Rory Gilmore and their pop culture-rich vocabulary. And long before Jack Bauer realized he came to the rescue a little too late to save his wife from terrorists, Joss was already an old hand at killing off regulars – the more tragically, the better. I could list the examples of its legacy all day, but if you don’t already know them yourself, you either don’t care to or can easily find hundreds of more articulate summaries with a Google search. No pitiful analysis I could come up with would ever do justice to just how revolutionary and empowering that silly, little vampire show was for those of us who felt we had no power.

Unfortunately, groundbreaking or not, it wasn’t immune to the bane of all high school dramas – what do we do after graduation? To borrow the show’s tendency to write life as a metaphor, it seemed as though just as Buffy the girl was trying to discover who she was after high school, meeting new friends, saying goodbye to some old ones, Buffy the show was having growing pains of its own, struggling to find its place in the much larger world it was creating. But throughout that difficult process, the one thing the fans could rely on was the writers’ unfailing ability to write clever and believable dialogue. Even the episodes that failed to click dramatically were still better than most of what was on television at the time simply because of the witty exchanges of the Scooby Gang. This is part of what made the episode I chose, “Hush,” so remarkable.

In Hush a group of fairy tale monsters known as The Gentlemen come to town and steal everyone's voices, leaving their victims unable to scream as they go about cutting seven people’s hearts out of their chests. The upshot of this is that nearly 30 minutes of the episode’s 44 minute total pass with almost no dialogue spoken. A bold choice, but it paid off. “Hush” was not only well-received when it aired, earning Whedon the show’s lone Emmy nomination for Outstanding Writing – a travesty only surpassed by the fact that he didn’t win – but it is also always included in any discussion of the best episodes of the series. One of the largest reasons why it was so successful is the top-notch acting. Particularly from the always great Alyson Hannigan and Emma Caulfield who played my personal favorite, Anya. The way she casually continued eating her popcorn after Giles put up his images of a Gentleman ripping out the heart of an innocent person – so perfectly Anya. Like all silent film, it was necessary for the acting to be over-the-top to register, but the deftness of the cast keeps the pantomime from ever crossing the line into silliness.

It was also our first introduction to Tara. Tentative and shy, Tara along with Giles’ girlfriend, Olivia, serve as a juxtaposition to the cynical Scoobies. Their totally justifiable fear serves to make the scenes with The Gentlemen much more frightening. Not that The Gentlemen need any help in that department. They are easily the scariest TV villains I have ever seen. Looking like James Carville and floating down the streets of Sunnydale with straight-jacket clad minions sprung from the local insane asylum, it’s not just their intent to collect people’s hearts that makes them terrifying (although that would certainly be enough) it’s the polite detachment they exude as they go about their task that’s truly disturbing. Couple that with a seeming lack of motive, and it’s really no wonder I still can’t watch the episode with the lights out. Nicholas Brendon has called “Hush” the most frightening episode they ever did. I’m inclined to agree with him.

(Editor's note: eek!)

Tara’s appearance is also noteworthy, of course, because of what she would eventually become. The relationship between her and Willow that would start later in the season would be the first long-term lesbian relationship in U.S. television. According to the DVD commentary, the writers were uncertain at this point that the relationship would become romantic but still wanted to make the scene in which Tara and Willow move the vending machine by working together, “sensual and powerful,” and “a very empowering statement about love. That two people together can accomplish more than when they're alone.” In fact, Whedon called it “the most romantic image we've put on film.”

The fact that they were able to create that image without saying anything speaks to the heart of the episode. Sometimes words just get in the way. Whether it’s Tara mustering up the nerve to connect with Willow, or Riley and Buffy’s first kiss, or Xander showing Anya he is in fact interested in her for more than “just orgasms,” actions speak louder. At the same time, words are shown to have an incredible power of their own. Riley almost being killed by the Initiative elevator and Spike being unable to tell Xander why he had a bloody mouth, could both have been avoided if only those involved could speak.

We rely so much on voicing our thoughts and feelings that being confronted with the inability to do so makes us feel vulnerable and is another big reason why The Gentlemen are so powerful as villains. However, their theft of that capability was what allowed the characters to solve many of their conflicts. By balancing those two ideas, Whedon effectively questions the role of speech in our lives. Do we lean on it too much or is it an indispensible gift? The answer is left for the viewers to decide while Joss leaves us speechless yet again.


Maggie Cats said...

I really think of Hush as being ground-breaking television. Some others might think that's over-stating it, but how often do you see a program with no dialogue for 40 or so minutes? And an episode of television that is hilarious AND terrifying AND incredibly moving all at the same time?

Never. Except for Hush.

Cate said...

A great read, thankyou so much for posting. Joss Whedon completes a lot of us I think. :)

Kristin said...

great post! but I don't remember the Tara/Willow scene at all?

Jennifer said...

Bravo! Now I want to go watch it again but then I'll be scared for a few days. Hm.